When I asked George about it this week, I learned that he painted these canvases from titles and themes relating to familiar legends, completing the works long before Segura wrote the stories.
George approached the visual part of the project in a unique way, as opposed to traditional illustration. Each of the forty stories inspired one painting, which suggested a somewhat vague reference to the content. This way he had more artistic freedom and was less bound by specifics in the text.
He devoted three years to painting the forty canvases (now known as the Bayou Collection), all typical of his Cajun style, most with large oak trees and ghostly figures. But it was one story Slaughter House that launched an artistic phenomenon. The story tells (in the mildest and simplest possible summary) of an evil dog that guards a house. Despite the fact that it’s never once mentioned in the story, Rodrigue used this opportunity to paint the loup-garou, a word translated from the French as ‘werewolf,’ and a story Rodrigue heard often as a boy. (Although in his mother’s version, the loup-garou was more of a crazy wolf or ghost dog that lurked in cemeteries and sugar cane fields. His mother used to tell him that if he wasn’t good today, the loup-garou would get him tonight.)
Ironically, there is another story in Bayou, a book I find it hard to recommend, called Le Loup-garou, and for that George didn’t paint the dog at all. Instead he painted Genevievre, a beautiful Evangeline-type figure standing under an oak tree at the edge of a cornfield, showing no hint of the horrible death awaiting her at the story’s end, other than the red outlines of a wolf painted into the trim of her dress.
To paint this loup-garou, Rodrigue searched his vast photo files for a suitable image. He had many photographs of his dog Tiffany (deceased already four years at this point), and he thought that her shape and stance would work well for his purposes. Mind you, he was not trying to recreate his cute terrier-spaniel mix that lived in his home since she was a puppy —-named ‘Tiffany’ to make her feel important as the runt of the litter and the last puppy left in the box (although he has mentioned, always while laughing, that she was a mean little dog, snipping at friends and eating the furniture). More than anything, Tiffany was his studio companion. George paints sometimes all night, and no one else sat up watching, but Tiffany did, and he snapped hundreds of photos of her over the years just by grabbing his camera, leaning off of his stool, and capturing her expression as she stared up at him at his easel.
Although I’ve calmed down about it in recent years, early on at the gallery on Royal Street and in Carmel, I felt this desperate need to convince people that this painting was in no way representative of or even suggestive of Tiffany, the family pet — a compendium that reduced the painting’s significance to nothing more than a pet portrait or a memorial. The photo of Tiffany, no question, was important, but it was all about the strong shape. In George’s design, the loup-garou, not Tiffany, was the subject of the painting. It was not a small dog sitting at someone’s feet or in the background. And never, in all of the years and hundreds of Blue Dog paintings since, has it suggested “Where’s Waldo?’’
Rodrigue’s dog image is out front and center, painted like a person, locked in. As with all of his paintings, whether Cajun people or trees or other objects, there is the strong sense of deliberateness — that if one tried to move the dog just a little bit to the left or right or up or down, then the entire composition would lose its coherence. In a sense, it would also lose its simplicity. George’s paintings look simple because they’re so complicated. Every detail of design and color is specific; there’s no randomness, and there’s no room for change.
Now that he’d found his loup-garou shape, Rodrigue created his design and drew his sketch. It was time to paint. The dog stands on tomb-like stepping stones leading from a red haunted house. The original loup-garou, as explained by his mother, said nothing about the dog being blue. Rather, George thought that the dark night sky would cast a blue-grey shade on the dog’s fur. As a late decision he made the eyes red, further suggesting the devil-dog legend. (pictured: Watchdog 40×30 inches, from 1984, the first Blue Dog painting)
The resulting painting did not cause an overnight sensation in the art world, or in the gallery, or among his friends, or anywhere in the public. But it did haunt George. He liked this strong figure and its odd color, a powerful shape that held its own without being a tree or a Cajun figure. There’s a common misconception that George painted the Blue Dog and immediately stopped painting Cajuns and never explored other ideas. It is true that over the next five or six years he painted dozens of these loup-garous, always in bayous, always reminiscent of that childhood tale.
But at the same time he continued his Cajun paintings (pictured below, the large paintings (8-15 feet): Fais do-do in 1986, Hank Williams in 1987, Louisiana Cowboys in 1988).
And his reputation as a portrait artist expanded greatly during this period. (pictured below: President Ronald Reagan: An American Hero 40×30 inches, from 1988 and George H.W. Bush with his Grandchildren 36×48 inches, from 1989, both commissioned by the Republican National Party. For more information see the post Reagan, Bush, and Gorbachev: A Story)
For those of you wondering, yes he did paint President Bill Clinton as well, at the request of the Democratic National Party, however that was much later, in 1997, and better saved for another post.
It wasn’t until an exhibition of sixty Rodrigue paintings in Los Angeles in 1988 that George first heard a new phrase. Up until that point, he called the image loup-garou, and he thought of its grey-blue color as the logical choice, given the atmosphere of these works. However, at this exhibition he overheard gallery visitors refer to the ten or twelve loup-garou paintings as ‘Blue Dogs.’ George says that his first reaction was, “Blue Dogs? What are they talking about?” He really had no idea that people looked at his loup-garou in this way. (pictured: Man’s Best Friend, 30×24 inches, 1988)
The show was a sell-out —the Cajuns, the Landscapes, and the Blue Dogs (which after this were no longer part of the Cajun paintings, but rather took on a category of their own). George left that show with a lot to think about. He was shocked that it took a California audience to recognize this new, strong phenomenon in his work.
When he returned to Louisiana and to his easel, he experimented. The first simple but important step towards changing a loup-garou into a blue dog was the eyes, which he changed from red to yellow. The other changes, and there are many, took place over the next twenty years, resulting in an image that no longer resembles or even suggests its dark roots. Each change, each period of development, deserves its own round of images and its own detailed blog. Believe it or not, I’ve barely touched on the history here. (pictured: Dog in a Box, 30×40 inches, 1990)
I’ll end with an anecdote:
Last year during the Rodrigue retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art, I struggled with how to explain the Blue Dog to children. It’s hard to make people understand that this is something George invented. Although Pop in nature, it is unlike Andy Warhol, who took everyday commercial products such as Brillo Boxes and Dollar Bills from the popular culture and inserted them back into that same culture as a piece of art. In George’s case, he invented the image itself — a non-commercial, completely unique painted illusion, which he introduced to the public from the very beginning not as a cartoon, not as a stuffed animal, not as a mouthpiece, and not even as a logo, but always, only, as a piece of art.
For these kids who grew up always knowing about the Blue Dog (and even for many adults who just forget life-before-blue-dog), the explanation is a challenge. To make a dent, I would tell them
“Imagine if you each had a piece of paper and a crayon, and I asked you to draw the bogeyman. What would you draw?”
“I believe you would each draw something different. That was George’s challenge with the loup-garou. There was no picture of what it looks like. He created it from his head. And in turn, he created the Blue Dog.”
And then I see light bulbs going off, and I imagine that I hear their thoughts:
“If he can do it, maybe I can too…..”
For a complete history of the Blue Dog, following this post see (2) Blue Dog: The Ghost of Tiffany, 1990-1992, (3) Blue Dog: Out of Control, 1993-1995, (4) Blue Dog Man: 1996-1999, (5) Blue Dog 2000, The Year of Xerox, (6) Blue Dog: The Abstract Paintings, 2001-2003, (7) Blue Dog: The Dark Period, 2006-2007